I've played many arcade scrolling shooters in my lifetime. In fact, it's my main genre of choice when talking favourites. After a while shmups all start to look and feel the same, and they become very predictable as you can often carry over tactics from one shmup to the next. Ikaruga, however, caught me by surprise.
In this shooter, not only are your reflexes put to the test, but so is your brain. Ikaruga is a genius mix of puzzle and action, where touching bullets is ok, in fact, encouraged in order to score high.
Enemies fire black and white bullets, and your ship can change between black and white. If your ship is white, touching a white bullet will absorb it and store its energy in a reserve which you may expend on a large blast that eliminates a large number of enemies on the screen at once. Same goes for when your ship is black and you touch a black bullet. However, touching a bullet of the opposite colour means the destruction of your ship and a loss of a life. Scoring is done by shooting enemies of the same colour in threes, so three whites or three blacks in a row will earn you a point on your chain counter. Breaking the combo with an enemy of the opposite colour destroys your chain and will hinder your score greatly, making the player carefully pick their targets and the best path through the stages, balancing risk and reward.
Now, take that concept and imagine it in one of the craziest bullet hell shooters you've seen. You get a frantic puzzle action game that will confuse your brain so hard and push your mental capacity to its limits!! It's pretty much one of the greatest game concepts of all time, and its execution is absolutely spot on! With its three difficulty settings, even players new to the genre can appreciate this one given some time to learn the mechanics, while the veterans to the genre will appreciate the higher difficulty settings and get plenty of hours worth of game time before they get to see the ending.
If great gameplay isn't enough, then just know that the game's aethestics are absolutely top tier. Even my friends who generally dislike arcade games are in awe at this title. This game is ridiculously artistic, featuring poetry in between stages, a musical score that while not upbeat, fits PERFECTLY to the mood the game is trying to convey, and some of the most creative stages and bosses I've ever seen in a game. The colour changing mechanic doesn't only apply to the gameplay, but the entire game itself embraces it. Ikaruga oozes with style, and has a way to make you feel emotions while playing. After completing the game for my first time I remember staring at the screen in awe, reflecting on everything that just happened and thinking about all the events that occured all throughout the game. I even shed a tear or two...
People argue that video games are art. This game is the perfect rebuttal to any doubts.